Every so often, not all that often really, but every so often a game comes along that is so strange, so bizarre, so out there, that you find yourself wondering how in the hell you are going to write a review of it that gives the reader any flavor of what the game is like to play at all. Adventure Pinball is such a game. I mean, pinball games are nothing new to the PC; I had a pinball game on my Apple 15 years ago called Night Mission Pinball. But this is a pinball game using the Unreal engine. How strange is that? Plenty strange, let me tell you.
Let me begin my saying I’ve been a big fan of steel ball (as opposed to Balls of Steel) ever since I was tall enough to reach the flipper buttons (probably standing on a pile of phonebooks to see over the lip of the table). You put me in an arcade even today, and I’m likely to play a game of pinball over most of the cutting edge video games. There are a number of lesser reasons for this, such as I’m not a huge fan of the Mortal Kombat type of game which makes up about 70% of newer video games, and I’m embarrassed having my ass whipped by some 12 year old who has blown his last 2 years allowance on that very same game. But the biggest reason that I really prefer playing pinball games in the arcade is because it’s an experience you can’t really get anywhere else. There have been some pretty good, I call them vidball, games, but don’t kid yourself, it’s not pinball. Programmers have gotten down the physics of the ball and the bumpers and whatnot, but the translation of flipper to keystrokes, and especially nudging to keystrokes is not a good one. The problem of the pinball machine and the computer screen having different aspect ratios has proven difficult as well. The video alternatives, 1) a small table, 2) a table with a different aspect ratio, and 3) the scrolling display that follows the ball on the table, have all been somewhat unsatisfactory. So, ironically, while pinball games have been somewhat successful integrating video games into their play by building displays into the table upright, vidball games have been less than successful at bringing the pinball machine experience onto the home computer.
So this is a vidball game encompassing nine tables, but each table has sub-tables, and many have secret tables, and ultimately the game has lots and lots of tables. By and large the tables are of the scrolling variety, but some side tables are small enough to fit on a single screen so scrolling is not necessary. These tables together are supposed to tell a story about a place called Forgotten Island, which looks a lot like Gilligan’s Island, only without the castaways, where everything was going hunky-dory until their stone idol lost its eyes. Now there are volcanoes and floods and all manner of badness, and it’s up to you as the player to set things right with flippers and ball. It’s peculiar to have a pinball game with such an involved plot, but ultimately it comes down to having to hit targets and ramps in a certain order to rescue a villager, or plug a volcano with a boulder, or escape from and ice cave; stuff like that.
There are some tables that this works for. In one you dunk the ball in a pit to coat it with tar, and then run it though a fire to set it ablaze, and then run it across an unlit fire to light it – the fire then melts a wall of ice allowing you to escape. Pretty cool, and the activities make sense, at least in terms of the plot. In another table, you have to run two ramps to open a gate. No explanation given why running these two ramps opens the gate, and there’s very little else on the table to do besides the two ramps. So you bang the ball around until you manage to hit the ramps, and then you go on. You have to accomplish the tasks on any given table to unlock the next table and advance. Some tables you solve so quickly you hardly play them at all, while others (I’m thinking of the 7th table in particular here) took so long to complete that I was totally sick of them by the time I finally did. The sounds didn’t help any. On the aforementioned 7th table, a guy yells “Let’s have some fun!” when you launch the ball. By the 200th launch, the fun was wearing pretty thin. The sounds as a whole are pretty flat, but I guess acceptable for a pinball game. The announcer or cheerleader or whatever you want to call him who yells out things like “Great shot!” and “Awesome!” sounds like a car salesman hopped up on goofballs, and is definitely someone I’d vote off this island.
I can’t help but make a comparison between this game and the Batman and Robin rollercoaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in NJ (just about the only noteworthy thing in NJ, by the way). On the rollercoaster, you start on a straightaway and accelerate to about 60 mph, and while accelerating you pass through a bunch of great scenery like Mr. Freeze’s lab and stately Wayne Manor. But you’re whipping along so fast, that you don’t get to see 97% of the stuff (and when you go back through it in reverse decelerating, you’re so frazzled from the ride, a combination of rollercoaster and high-g endurance test, that you miss it again). The Unreal engine allows lots of stuff to go on, but you’re playing pinball – you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball – and you can’t appreciate it or really even notice it. Water bubbles and flows, butterflies flutter, and cavemen and dinosaurs lumber. It’s not breathtaking beauty, but it’s a lot for a pinball game. It also happens to be a lot for my processor, apparently. The table scrolls around with the ball, and sometimes the scrolling is very smooth, but in places where there is a lot of background stuff going on, the scrolling is very unsmooth. It makes it a little difficult to time out the motion of your flippers sometimes. I’ve had the ball coming down on my flipper, and the scrolling stutter, and I hit the flipper button, and the ball bounces off the flipper and down the drain, and then the flipper moves. That may sound like sour grapes – I’ve just lost my ball. But play the game yourself a little (or a great deal as I have) and you’ll notice that there is sometimes a noticeable and fatal delay between hitting the flipper button and the flipper actually moving. And this is at 640x480 resolution! It’s probably even worse at higher resolutions. This application of the unreal engine is also not without its programming difficulties. There was some tearing and clipping of pieces of the tables, I had a couple of freezes that required full reboot, and twice the game dumped me to the blue screen of death.
In the first 20 minutes of playing this game, I was just about ready to write my review. I’d only seen the first two tables (which come unlocked at the start), but that was enough for me. The unreal engine, which gave me palm trees for bumpers which dropped leaves when hit and a guy wandering around the board who clobbers the ball with a club, was boosting the bar for graphics (in a pinball game at any rate), but otherwise wasn’t adding anything to the play value. Then I got a little hooked on the plot (not a lot, but a little) and it made the game a little addictive, and then two days later I’ve done all nine tables and its out of my mind and off of my hard drive. That, I suppose, is the hazard of a pinball game with a plot – it’s more addictive to play than your average pinball game, but replay value ultimately goes out the window. Even with what must add up to 30 tables and sub-tables and side-tables, you end up with a very I’ve-solved-this-table-so-why-play-it-again mindset. I’ve solved Forgotten Island, and now I’ve forgotten it.